Callahan wishes the voices would stop, but they never do. Some are soft as a caress, some are screamed out shrill. Some are wistful sighs of longing, some are determined mantras. Some are woven with glee, some are drowned in sorrow. No matter what they are, they never stop, swirling around his head, taunting him to listen, daring him to comfort, daring him to help, daring him to laugh, daring him to cry.
There was a time when he used to love the voices. He used to find his fellow human’s thoughts fascinating at best, interesting at the least. He would lie hours at the park with her, the slight wetness of the grass making his clothes damp. He didn’t mind, even when she made fun of him every time. Occasionally pulling out grass blades, he used to close his eyes and ask her to choose someone random in the park. He would listen to their thoughts and tell her things from their day. They would decide if the person deserved a flower, or a little tripping as they walked and mud-stained shoes to take home. It would be the beach instead of the park if the weather was better, it would be sea glass and seashells or sand on their beach towel and their sun lotion running out. They never got sunburnt. Ever. They never got caught, any lingering guilt in Callahan’s mind being washed away by her amused smile and the mirth dancing in her eyes.
Her smiles eventually dimmed, not quite outshining the moon anymore. All of the autumn she held in her eyes faded, never quite glowing happily anymore. He hadn’t known there had been a reason for the sudden long sleeves. Her fashion choices hadn’t always been particularly reasonable. The unusual loose clothes had been another quirk of hers, until they weren’t. Until the bruises webbed so deep, the brush of fabric hurt. Callahan had asked, as he always did.
He’d gently pressed an ice pack to her tender forearm, the angry red skin suspiciously resembling the shape of a boot heel.
“He left,” she’d muttered, wincing. “Father dearest has to have someone to hit now, doesn’t he?”
“Your brother? Left where?” He swallows, his throat suddenly dry and bitter.
“I don’t know. All the times he used to say he’s just gonna pack a bag and leave.” She paused. “He did exactly that,” she’d said with a wry smile. And Callahan had wished he could soothe, but hadn’t been able to muster up the words.
If he’d only broken the damn promise he’d made her. Sooner, that is. ‘You promised,’ she’d say, every time he so much as thought about listening to her thoughts. She’d always known him so well, like no one else did. No one else had bothered enough to get to know him. ‘You promised,’ she’d repeat. The one day she didn’t say those two words, everything changed.
It had all been too much. He’d been too late, running bare feet to the shabby flat she lived in. The pills she’d swallowed had been one too many. The ambulance had been much too late in taking her to the hospital. The rush of numbness she’d left behind had been too much, is too much, will always be too much.
The voices he was able to ignore with her by his side has slowly started to become too much again. ‘The weird quiet boy’, the voices go. ‘Where is the freak that’s always with him?’, they go, an endless of string of passing thoughts that haunt him.
An elderly couple that visit the park wonder about the odd boy and his friend who used to give out flowers to random people there. On a particularly slow day, the ice cream truck employee at the beach watches a couple rub sun lotion on each other. He thinks he sees the girl with the mischievous smile and the boy with black painted nails who saved his smiles for the girl alone. No. It’s someone else. He wonders what they did with all the sun screen they stole, he wonders why they don’t come to steal anymore.
On the day of her funeral, rain pours down in buckets. It’s the kind of rain that makes the world grey, the chill seeping through your socks to bite your toes. The kind of rain that demands that your umbrellas be bought out, the streets filled with people hurrying, cars splashing the sidewalk with muddy water, a few children jumping around in the puddles as their mothers scream bloody murder for them to get inside the house.
Callahan wears his best black suit, the stitches ripping held together by safety pins. He takes the used umbrella that’s left outside of his neighbour’s door to dry, intent on returning it after. The faces he recognizes at the funeral are few and far in between, shielded by the steady sheet of pouring rain. He can’t help but grit his teeth at the sight of her father. He looks at the man’s hands, expects them to be drenched in her blood. Dirty nails and busted knuckles from bar fights are all he sees. There’s a boy next to him, shoulders hunched forward. He recognises him to be her brother with mute surprise. Thoughts that are much too sad, some much too bored, some much too cold, some much too pitiful spin around in his head like an endless vinyl record.
The ceremony passes by him in a blur. He watches as the number of umbrellas dawdling dwindle, eventually just leaving him standing in the corner of the cemetery, with her family at the other side. He walks closer, quietly dropping the irises he’d bought for her on top of the coffin.
He doesn’t notice her brother beside him until a low, hesitant voice breaks the heavy silence. He looks up, finding familiar eyes that aren’t quite the same, eyes that hold autumn, looking back at him.
“Irises symbolize hope,” he says.
Callahan hears nothing but loss, nostalgia and a dark cloud of regret hanging over the boy’s thoughts, a chaste few snippets of his sister and him happy and giggling. Thoughts of her faded with time, sporting chubby cheeks instead of the sharp cheek bones Callahan had known, her little hands fisted in his shirt as he bounces her in his arms, pretending to drop her every now and then to hear her shriek in delight. Thoughts of her, now a little older, standing behind her brother as he tries to shield her from their father’s unbridled fury. Thoughts of her loving face as he kneels in front of her, sobbing that he likes boys, petrified that she’d push him away. She pulls him in without hesitance. She tells him that she likes boys too, pulling a watery giggle from her brother, that her best friend who’s a boy does too, that there is nothing wrong with him, that she loves him, and that she’s very proud of him. Thoughts of him leaving her at the middle of the night, with nothing to remind her of him but a promise to come back that was bound to be broken in a tear stained letter.
Callahan blinks, pulling himself from the memory lane that he’d been thrust in, unsought tears threatening to spill over. He’s afraid, afraid that if he starts crying, he’ll never stop, afraid that he’ll never stop staring at the irises sitting among the sea of other flowers.
“Why did you leave,” he whispers. If the boy is surprised by the question, he doesn’t show it but to exhale a short puff of air.
“I had to,” he replies, his voice cracking at the last word. “I couldn’t not leave,” he says, voice rough with defeat, with desperation. Callahan watches as the rest of the family slowly walk away, leaving them behind.
“She was beautiful, wasn’t she,” Callahan says, the words coming out watery, so fragile he’s surprised they don’t vanish, surprised that they don’t get lost in the rain. He couldn’t mean the words more if he tried.
“She was,” he agrees, offering a small, sad quirk of his thin lips.
Callahan cries, and he isn’t alone as he does. He mourns, holding on to the boy beside him, two pairs of autumn eyes now reduced to one, unable to completely let go of the pair that’s lost, unable to look away from the pair that’s in front of him.